Today’s essay is by Avery Robinson, a former Detroiter who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. This article is reprinted from Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.
This seemed like a good piece to follow the one about knishes, another traditional Jewish food.
I had to laugh when I read how his great grand-aunt Minnie’s recipe consisted of a list of six ingredients and no directions; she and everyone else she may have given the recipe to would have inherently known what to do with it. I was reminded of the time my mother, not a great cook, asked her mother-in-law for her noodle kugel recipe. My grandmother told her to use noodles, a grated apple, canned pineapple, sugar, salt…”Don’t you need eggs?” asked my mother. “Eggs?” said my grandmom. “Of course eggs!”
Kugel is my favorite food. My love for it has compelled me to host kugel-offs, spend countless hours looking for kugel recipes in culinary archives, write my graduate thesis on the pudding’s history in America, and generally, devote more time to this casserole than any millennial ought to. But for years when people have asked me about my kugel recipe, I demurred. “I don’t use recipes,” I said. “I cook by feeling, like our grandmothers did.”
But I was not happy about my answer. I was not happy with my kugel complacency. I craved some kind of ancestral culinary anchor—a family recipe.
I own scores of Jewish cookbooks. Across the 90 years of American Jewish cooking that they represent, there is an aggregate kugel content of more than 150 different recipes. Yet none of them evoked any personal connection or meaning. Even my mother’s delicious kugels—the sweet lukshen (noodle) kugel she serves on Shabbat, the potato kugelletes on Passover—lack the link I yearned for. My mother’s recipes were not ones handed down to her by her grandmother or mother. And that precise lineage was the ingredient missing in my kugel.
My introduction to potato kugel
I ate my first real potato kugel—the kind not wedged into muffin tins—when I was 18 and living in Israel. This same year I tasted my first savory noodle kugel. It blew my mind—I knew kugel as a sweet complement to a savory meal. But not as a Jewish replacement for roasted potatoes.
Then there were the Yerushalmi kugels—caramelized noodles flavored with black pepper. I never thought of kugel as such a dynamic canvas. Until then, I had no idea that unsweetened kugels existed. A new world was opening before me, and I wanted to learn all I could about this Ashkenazi [Eastern European Jewish] staple.
For the next seven years I tasted most every kugel I could find. Some were made with quinoa; another was cinnamon-free, but loaded with nutmeg (don’t try this at home); there was one bound by applesauce, gluten-free, and vegan; and increasingly more autumnal gourd-based kugels
I went out of my way for kugel. But I wasn’t just looking for greatness. I was also asking questions: Why use sweet potatoes and russets? What makes a spinach casserole a kugel? For four consecutive years during college at the Malka and Elimelech Kugelov Kugel-off—an annual event hosted by the Jewish culture club at the University of Michigan—my fellow eaters and I critiqued an average of 15 kugels year.
It was a long process, throughout which I made a lot of kugels of my own. But never with a recipe of my own.
Back to Mother Russia
In 2014, I joined an organized trip to the Pale of Settlement to explore the origins of Ashkenazi foodways. Specifically, I went in search of my family’s heritage, to see where my family came from; I went to find my culinary birthright.
“Four hours by horse from Minsk,” jokes my father’s Cousin Lou about the distance to my family’s ancestral shtetl of Lekhovich, a Belarusian town 140 miles due south of Vilna.
In this picturesque town, surrounded by lush green fields, with an apple orchard a stone’s throw from the market square, there are few signs of a Jewish past: two monuments recognizing the Jewish victims of the Shoah, a department store in a former beis midrash [study hall], and a canning factory has replaced the Great Shul.
Though I found no answers there to my kugel queries—indeed, I didn’t find any dish there resembling a kugel—I did find them east of Bialystok in Krynki, a town where nine of out 10 people were Jews before the Holocaust.
In the middle of Krynki was a small restaurant serving made-to-order pierogen and other Polish staples, including babka ziemniaczana. This was not the layered chocolate or cinnamon confection you think of when you think of babka. This was a potato and onion pudding: a kugel.
It was a Jewish pudding unlike anything my family ever made—a savory outlier to the sweet lukshen I knew from my youth—complete with a latticework of sour cream as garnish. I couldn’t claim it as my family’s recipe—after all, my ancestors lived more than 80 miles away. But it was a delicious start to finding something I could eventually claim as my own.
The search continues
We continued our journey north, having lunch in the town of Sejny, home to a yeshiva, the White Shul, and a Lithuanian restaurant serving kugelis, a potato kugel often made with bacon fat.
It smelled great and looked tempting, but as a kosher-observant person, I would not try it. I imagine it’s reminiscent of an equally inimitable schmaltzy kugel—made with rendered chicken or goose fat instead of the more contemporary butter, oils, and margarines—another delicacy I have never sampled because I was raised in a world of “lite” sweet kugels, a world that tried to eschew cholesterol.
I continued traveling in the region, and though I ate lot of pickles and smoked fish and fell in love with black bread, I found no more Jewish puddings. I was no closer to identifying a kugel of my own, much less identifying what I was going to do with rest of my life.
I admit I was lost. I had post-graduation angst. I was living at my parents’ house with no idea about my future. I was unemployed and didn’t know what else to explore.
A few weeks after my summer travels, I headed to New York to attend a workshop on contemporary Jewish food culture that included historical discussions, archival visits, cooking lessons, and encounters at eateries of all sorts.
First, though, participants had to introduce ourselves to one another. “Hi, I’m Avery Robinson from Detroit, Michigan. I just finished a master’s at the University of Michigan in Jewish American culinary history through the lens of kugel.”
An hour later, and 21 other much more impressive self-descriptions later, we ventured to our first meal. In a private room at Bar Bolonat, Sydney, another conference attendee, asked me if I am related to some other Detroit Robinsons. I am; they are my father’s aunt and uncle. Apparently, Sydney and I are cousins.
And, as you’d expect at a food conference, we started talking about family recipes.
Family recipes! My heart soared.
A family recipe at last
As far as I knew, there weren’t any. Sydney explained that her great-grandmother Minnie, a sister to my great-grandmother, was the cook in the family. Her recipes were central to her family’s identity. Lacto-fermented pickles, for example, were so important in my cousin Sydney’s life that she made batches of them as wedding favors for all of her wedding guests.
Now I have a lacto-fermented pickle recipe! And it’s from kin!
Later in the week, I learned that it wasn’t just pickles that survived the family’s migration to Detroit. Minnie had brought other recipes from Europe to Michigan with her.
Blintzes! A Pesach meringue! Mandelbrodt! And kugel!
Finally, a kugel recipe to call my own. Having read thousands of recipes for kugel, nothing has felt anywhere near as right as this one.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:21 says, “Without bread, there is no Torah.” For my family, this is our bread, our Torah. Spending time in my family’s shtetl last summer was great—but discovering this trove of recipes was a much more tangible—and tasty—homecoming.
Minnie’s recipe for “Potato Pudding” is a work of utter simplicity, poverty, and secrets. Six ingredients are listed in four lines. If you didn’t know better, you might confuse it for instructions on latkes or roasted potatoes.
Minnie’s contemporaries would have known the potatoes were to be grated; there’d be no need to write that down. They’d have known everything went into a greased casserole dish and then into a 350- to 400-degree oven until it was done, an endpoint the cook would have to determine.
There’s no direction about salt or pepper or schmaltz, but for me, that’s not the point. This recipe—and the card it’s written out on—is a reminder of my family’s journey from Lekhovich to Detroit. Beyond my family recipe, it is my story.
The potato kugel recipe below comes from The Pleasures of Your Food Processor by Norene Gilletz. The photo is by Melissa Goodman via Flickr Creative Commons.